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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, one of the problems of the debate on the gracious Speech is that one can speak only once and has therefore to choose on which area of policy to talk. I am sure that we could all speak on more than one subject but, because of my long involvement in election organisation, I have decided to concentrate on the Bill on electoral administration.

I start by declaring an interest as chair of an organisation called the H S Chapman Society, a group which brings together people like myself with an interest in elections and particularly in the secrecy of the ballot. The group involves legal advisers to all the parties, electoral registration officers and the Electoral Commission. Over the past few months we had many discussions with the then Minister, Chris Leslie, on the possible consequences of the expansion of postal voting and how to increase voter participation. I must stress, however, that my comments today are purely my own and not those of the society.

It was extraordinary that when the concept of postal voting on demand was mooted, there was an immediate assumption that fraud would be rampant, and prior to the general election, sections of the media were almost hysterical, making the wildest assumptions based on the outcome of one investigation—serious though it was—in Birmingham. This created a concern among the public about the integrity of the vote. Many of the fears clearly were exaggerated, but it was right, because of the obvious increase in postal voting, that during the election the DCA, the returning officers and the police worked actively together to improve the level of security in the process.

However, we have to be very circumspect about making accusations about any cases until they are proven. Sam Younger, chair of the Electoral Commission, put the concern in context when, in the Financial Times of 6 May, he said:

It is to be hoped that the Bill to be introduced by the Government will respond to that call.

No matter how small the level of fraud or malpractice, it cannot be tolerated and has to be countered, regardless of whether it relates to postal voting, personation or some other electoral offence. When an offence is proven, strong action should be taken.

I am sure that the measures proposed in the Bill will be fully discussed when the Bill is presented. I trust that the Bill's principle will not be opposed; rather, that we will centre on the detail of the proposals.

I wish to refer today to only two measures. I fully support the principle that political parties should no longer receive completed application forms for postal votes, but I understand from the EROs that political parties handing in large quantities of applications at a late stage was not a major problem at this election as it had been in the European elections. However, there
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is a need for a real examination of political parties and their role in elections—not to restrict them but rather to clarify what they can and cannot do.

Equally, it is right that there should be a power of arrest at the polling station, or any other location, if there is a reasonable suspicion of personation. When the legislation on personation was originally drafted there were no facilities for absent voting and so it was not necessary to consider other locations, but now the situation has changed and it is.

Working in the build-up to the first elections in many countries in eastern Europe convinced me of the value of using identity cards as identification for voting. But I am not going to enter into that debate today—that is for another occasion.

Electoral registration, however, is the linchpin of our electoral system, and building the register is fundamental to improving voter participation in elections. That raises the thorny question of individual versus household registration. The current law on electoral registration is still very much based on that introduced in the 19th century, with changes grafted on. So there may be a need to examine change.

The continual decline in registration cannot be ignored. While individual registration would make it possible for a check to be made between postal vote ballot papers and the details held on the electoral register, there are other implications. There could be a situation where once a registration officer receives a form—assuming it is being done on an individual basis—he or she will presume that all members of the household have responded. But that may not be the case and rising 18s, unknown to the registration officer, will not receive a form.

There may be a third option: one form going to each household with each member of the household individually signing it and giving details such as date of birth.

Whatever process is arrived at, the level of checking has to be improved. Adequate resources have to be made available for additional canvasses over a longer canvass period. This would be assisted by the closing date for registration being brought nearer to polling day. The register should then be maintained electronically and regularly updated. The ultimate should be the production of a national register.

Nor can we continue to ignore clerical errors in the production of the register, as has happened in Hounslow and other places. No one should be denied their right to vote because of administrative defects.

Research carried out by the Electoral Commission showed the lack of understanding of the connection between political activity and governmental consequences. Now that citizenship is back on the school curriculum, perhaps that will be overcome and the importance of registration and voting will be greater understood.

Since the passing of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has carried out a review of the Act with a view to putting proposals to the Government for a further
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elections Bill. I hope that when that Bill eventually appears it will look at a number of wider issues relating to elections, not least the role of the commission itself and its statutory responsibility—particularly its relationship with Parliament, to which I believe it should be accountable—and its working relationship with the political parties.

There also needs to be an examination of the possible conflict of interest in chief executives of local authorities also being the returning officers for their authorities. I firmly believe that we should re-examine the question of when election expenses should start to be declared. I appreciate that the Newark case in 1997 was a reason for an examination of when expenditure should be counted as an election expense. It is said that we now have clarity, although I have my doubts. However, by making the changes, we succeeded in removing the financial level playing field which the 2000 Act was designed to achieve.

We now have a system in which any amount of money can be spent advertising a candidate—not a party—prior to the dissolution of Parliament, even when, as with this last general election, the campaign actually started well before that date. I am aware of one candidate—I know that there are many others—in a highly marginal seat who personally spent £90,000 in the run-up to the campaign, promoting himself, even before the other parties had selected their candidates. He did not win, showing that money is not always the answer; nevertheless, he started the campaign with an unfair advantage. This possible situation was highlighted across the Chamber during the passage of the 2000 Act. It certainly needs re-examination, and an alternative found.

I also firmly believe that the legislation governing all elections is in need of consolidation. I hope that a consolidation Bill will be produced before too long.

There are many other areas around the whole question of elections and election law that could be discussed: when elections are held, early voting, fixed-term Parliaments, removing the discrepancy between the qualifying age of nomination and voting by bringing both to 18—which I support—or even introducing compulsory voting, which I do not support.

In 1993, the Labour Party produced a report on electoral systems, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Plant. I was responsible for a section called "Voter Participation", which covered all the points that I have raised today, and others, including the establishment of an Electoral Commission.

As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said, all the parties have consistently supported the retention of postal voting on demand, as has the Electoral Commission. But that support has to be maintained, and it will be maintained and expanded only if there is public confidence in the process. So I believe that the Government are right to introduce a Bill that will help to restore that public confidence, and I hope that it receives support across the House.
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6.12 pm

Lord Wakeham: My Lords, although he is not in his place, I should first like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, on his maiden speech. His is a very remarkable story. He also illustrates one of the points that I want to make. I feel that people of his experience often find—I hope I am wrong in his case—that, because of our procedures, they do not make the extremely valuable contribution to the House that could be made, given their experience and knowledge. I shall come to that in a moment.

Secondly, I congratulate the Government on their election victory. It was a significant achievement. I suspect that they called the election just in time. As Kenneth Clarke said the other day, in the end, Labour governments run out of money.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the sentence in the gracious Speech that referred to this House. There is much to be done. The Government are right to continue their efforts, and I hope that they will find a consensus on the best way forward. This is not the time for me to speculate on what would be the best way forward, but there are some important points to bear in mind as we seek that consensus.

First, no one will get everything that he or she wants. Unless we are prepared to compromise, either nothing will be achieved or great damage will be done. That applies to the Government, my noble friends on the Opposition Front Bench, the Liberal Democrats and the House of Commons as well as the House of Lords. Ever since the Royal Commission, which I had the honour to chair, attempted to produce a compromise, everybody has told me why they wanted something different. Nobody has asked how we can make progress that everybody can live with. So a compromise of some sort is necessary.

Secondly, the changes must come about over time. We can agree a plan or a blueprint, but the implementation must take place over years. Life peerages have been a great success; they were brought in over a great deal of time, and the House absorbed them very successfully.

Thirdly, your Lordships' House and, more particularly, the other place, need to bear it in mind that this House is a very different place and does a very different job from the House of Commons. Obviously, we are a revising Chamber, and in the end it is right and proper that the House of Commons and the Government should get their way if we cannot persuade them otherwise. But that is not all. That brings me back to the noble Lord, Lord Alliance. We are a different House because many of your Lordships are not primarily politicians. Many arrived in this place because of distinguished work or great experience in a range of fields. Increasingly I think that our procedures are not designed to make the maximum use of their expertise.

Of course, many of the noble Lords to whom I refer form the backbone of the Select Committees and contribute significantly to the international reputation of our work, but I wonder whether their involvement
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in legislation with, of course, a number of important and distinguished exceptions, matches that contribution. I suspect that they find that some parts of our procedures are not conducive to the best scrutiny of legislation. If the Minister or the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor have any doubts, I invite them to talk privately to a number of the distinguished colleagues who have come from industry or the professions to their side of the House since 1979 but no longer play a great part in the House and ask them exactly why they do not. I think that it will be found that many of them do not believe that our procedures are necessarily conducive to getting the best out of their expertise.

The Labour Party report prepared under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, tackles some of those issues. I, for one, would be happy to see some of its aspects studied further. There are other aspects of the report with which I disagree profoundly. For example, I can see no justification for an arbitrary 60-day timetabling of Bills. Very few would fall foul of it, and in all the cases that I have seen the Government have had the major responsibility. I am in favour of timetabling but on the basis of agreement through the usual channels.

There have been many attempts to reform your Lordships' House, and some of us bear the scars. We all seem to flounder on composition. My view is that we ask the wrong question. We are reasonably clear on what job the House should be doing; the question is how we get those best suited to do that work. We need experience and expertise, particularly from those who are not primarily politicians. There are plenty of politicians in the Commons, and we certainly do not want the politicians who cannot make it to the House of Commons or any of the other Parliaments or Assemblies. As someone put it in evidence to the Royal Commission, we do not want the fourth XI of political life as Members of this House.

As I said, compromise is essential if we are to find a consensus. It was for that reason that some of us, with some reluctance, supported the idea of some elected Members of the House. They need to be few to start with, elected for a long time, and, in my view, without the option of being re-elected. They would come from and be chosen by the citizens of their region; they would not be looking over their shoulder but would be free to do what they felt best. They would be different from other Members of the House, but we already have Members who arrived here from many different routes, and we seem to have no difficulty in working together. I am still a strong supporter of the first-past-the-post system for the House of Commons, but there is a strong case for the political membership of this House being broadly on a PR basis.

With all those things, there are some practical difficulties to be got over, but those questions have been addressed many times before, and it is possible to find solutions for all of them, particularly if we do not want to fix it in five minutes. I wish the Government well in their consideration of these matters.
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6.20 pm

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